History uncovered

Preserved: A nearly intact roof put on a Fort McHenry porch in 1829 was found under a layer of roofing tin.

January 25, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

They sure don't make roofs like this one anymore.

Restoration workers at Fort McHenry have peeled a layer of roofing tin from a 91-foot barracks porch and uncovered a shake-shingle roof that has survived nearly intact since it was built in 1829.

Scott S. Sheads, the National Park Service historian at the fort, called the roof over the second-floor porch of Barracks 1 "the earliest intact roof on a military building that we know of."

Sheads said yesterday the same roof shaded Baltimore Mayor George Brown, 31 members of the state legislature, and Baltimore newspaper editor Francis Key Howard - the grandson of Francis Scott Key - after they were jailed at the fort in 1861.

They were Southern sympathizers at the start of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln and his army were struggling to prevent Maryland's secession from the Union.

"It was known as `Hotel McHenry,'" Sheads said. "They were allowed to sit out on the balcony and receive visitors."

Howard wrote later of the "odd and not pleasant coincidence" of being imprisoned at the same fort whose defense 47 years earlier, during the War of 1812, was immortalized by his grandfather in "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"The flag which he had then so proudly hailed, I saw waving at the same place over the victims of as vulgar and brutal a despotism as modern times have witnessed," Howard said.

The Army held civilian prisoners at the fort until March 1862, freeing them after Maryland elected a pro-Union legislature.

Military records indicate the 1829 porch roof on Barracks 1 was built with $56 worth of Long Island pine shingles and $15.75 worth of iron cut nails.

The design of the nails enabled historians this week to confirm the roof's age. In 1837, the shingles were covered with "tin" - actually rolled sheet iron.

Porches on the fort's other barracks buildings, of the same age and design, had rotted away by 1905. They were replaced in 1929, said John Pousson, a Park Service archaeologist.

Until the current restoration began in November, the fort's staff had assumed that the Barracks 1 porch roof was also a 20th-century replacement.

"You spend years here and think you know it all, but there are still surprises," said Vinnie Vaise, a Park Service ranger.

A sample of the shingles and nails will be displayed. The rest are being covered by plywood and stainless steel. The new "tin" roof will be painted red.

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